Upstream Arts

An african american young woman paints with a smile on her face

Art as access

“Access is an attitude,” according to Julie Guidry, co-founder and executive director of Upstream Arts, a nonprofit that enhances the lives of adults and youth with disabilities through arts education.

Access is a large part of what Upstream Arts provides in special education classrooms, helping students with cognitive, developmental, emotional, behavioral, and physical disabilities build stronger communication and social skills. A recent grant from F. R. Bigelow Foundation provided support for in-classroom arts residencies in Saint Paul Public Schools.

“In any given classroom, the range of abilities we see is as diverse as the kids themselves. That’s why an attitude of access is so important. Traditionally, when we talk about access, we think of tools like ramps or automatic door switches. We also need to consider our thinking: How are we welcoming diverse individuals and inviting them to be part of a community, not just getting them through the door? That is what we do at Upstream Arts,” said Guidry.

Professional artists in teams of two or three take up residency in a classroom, usually once a week for a semester at a time. Upstream Arts provides extensive training to artists, teachers and other education professionals to facilitate an open and structured environment. Artistic experiences for students range from dance to painting, from poetry to song.

“We look at ways the arts can help students understand and be understood. If they’re painting, they talk about things like ‘If we see a curved shape on a canvas, how does it make us feel? If we see a curved shape in a person’s body language, how might that person be feeling?’ If they’re dancing, they can explore questions like ‘How can the way you move and your proximity to a person determine how they might feel about you?’ So much of how we communicate is nonverbal. The arts help students explore that,” said Guidry.

In total, Upstream Arts worked with 2,800 individuals of all ages and abilities last year, delivering over 16,000 contact hours through 126 programs, including six programs serving 82 students in St. Paul Public Schools. In addition to facilitating trainings across the region, all Upstream Arts classroom programming meets many of Minnesota’s state standards for the arts.

Students who participate in Upstream Arts’ programming show clear improvements on their Individualized Education Plan – a tool used to work with students receiving Special Education Services, parents and educators to create learning goals specific to each student.

“We know that everyone learns differently. In one hour students can experience three or four different artistic disciplines. This creates the greatest variety of access points for students to engage and the greatest potential for learning and growth. This is a universally designed experience that benefits the whole classroom,” said Guidry.